Kansas Jayhawks (5-5) vs. North Dakota State Bison (0-3)
KU plays a four game series with North Dakota State this weekend at Hoglund. The games are scheduled for Friday at 3PM, Saturday is a double headers starting at Noon, and the fourth game on Sunday starting at 1PM. As I write this preview on Friday morning it is 28 degrees outside with blowing snow flurries. Knowing Coach Price would rather have his liver removed from his body than cancel any baseball game I fully expect these games will go off as scheduled despite the conditions. The temperature on Friday will probably not break freezing level, Saturday it will be a bit warmer, around 40. Only Sunday promises to be pleasant at all. On that afternoon Lawrence might enjoy something in the neighborhood of 50 with sun.
[Update] The Friday game has been postponed. The two teams will now play back-to-back doubleheaders. Start times, Saturday at 1PM, Sunday at 11AM.
North Dakota State University does not have a strong baseball program yet. Last year they finished with a record of 11-30 vs. NCAA D-I opponents and an RPI ranking of 247 out of 293 teams. The problems the Bison deal with are common among lower level D-I teams. Their pitching staff is very shallow, they have a few hitters but not enough to create a constant pressure line-up, and the field work costs them games (last year they gave up 59 unearned runs in 47 games). NDSU started 2008 a few weeks later than most schools. This week the Bison were swept in a three game series in Oklahoma. The scores were all pretty ugly. 15-3, 13-0 and 9-3. Full 2007 NDSU statistics can be found here. They have a few good players returning this year. (2007 stats below)
Ryan Langlais (SR. Inf., #8) 155 at bat, .355/.416/.652, 10 HR, 38 RBI.
Sebastian Miles (SR, 1B, #24) 135 at bats, .274/.333/.356, 1 HR 16 RBI.
Kole Zimmerman (SR, C/OF, #7) 167 at bats, .257/.339/.431, 5 HR, 37 RBI.
Shannon Ekermans (So, DH/P, #15) 121 at bats, .281/.313/.413, 3 HR 18 RBI. Shannon is from South Africa, so you know he will love this weather. Ekermans is a two way player, he is a starting pitcher as well as a DH.
Meanwhile, the Jayhawks are on a hot streak. KU has won its last three games and evened its record at 5-5. The last two wins were against decent opponents, Iowa and LeMoyne. What has been most welcome about these recent wins has been the sudden revival of the Jayhawk bat attack. After struggling to score runs in their first seven games KU raked up 34 runs in the last three games. Their recent performance has caused me to regain some of my pre-season optimism for this team. I know this team has a good and deep pitching staff. I know this team has a lot of offensive potential. I know this team has good athletes at most of the premium defensive positions. The tools are all in place. This is a team that can do some damage in the Big-12 this year. This is a team that can play in June. The tension of the season is the waiting and hoping that the parts will all fall into place and the team plays up to the highest level to which it is capable.
Earlier this season I fell into the trap of looking ahead of the immediate opponent, so it is probably best to step away from the "big picture" story of the season right now and just focus on getting some wins this weekend.
Probable Starting Pitchers (KU 2008 stats - NDSU 2007 stats given)
Friday: KU Shaeffer Hall (1-0, 2.70 ERA) vs. NDSU Chad Berg (NA)
Saturday 1: KU Nick Czyz (0-2, 10.24 ERA) vs. NDSU Matt Bower (0-1, 5.14 ERA)
Saturday 2: KU Andres Esquibel (0-0, 0 ERA) vs. NDSU Jake Laber (6-6, 3.89 ERA)
Sunday: KU Sam Freeman (2-0, 4.09 ERA) vs. TBA
Jake Laber, the game three start for NDSU seems to be their staff ace. Last year he pitched 83.1 Innings, gave up 81 hits, while building a 47/68 BB/K ratio. He was treated roughy by the Sooners on Tuesday, giving up nine runs (only five earned) in 5.2 innings.
A few other notes:
A sport divided
North Dakota State University is a great example of an unfortunate dynamic in NCAA baseball. Colleges want to play 56 game schedules; however, to get all these games in before the end of the spring semester, they must start playing baseball in February. Most of the nation is not exactly hospitable to baseball in February. KU is even considered a "Cold Weather" school for college baseball, and Lawrence KS is not exactly in the northern reaches of the nation. Fargo ND much more closely fits that description. NDSU will not play a home game until April 11th. Their first 23 games will be on the road. On the season NDSU will play 35 road games and only 15 at home. It must be ridiculously hard to build a program and develop a fan base operating with a schedule like this. An outside observer can only tip their cap to the NDSU players. They rake up a lot of mileage during the season traveling all over the Midwest for games and rarely are able to enjoy a weekend in friendly territory until late in the season.
Andy Marks suffered a short setback in his rehab last week, but appears to be back on track now. Hopefully Andy will be ready to take the mound for relief work in a few weeks and, if all goes well, will be nudged back into the rotation when ready. Catcher Buck Afenir is nursing a pulled hammy, but might be ready to get back behind the dish this weekend.